Unlike Jesse, I LOOOOVE celebrating my birthday. I have even been known, from time to time, to celebrate a birthday month. I blame this on having to share the glory with Thanksgiving. Because of the national holiday (one of my favorites, let it be known) friends are often not around to help me celebrate and it ends up being a prolonged affair to accommodate everyone’s different travel schedules and family obligations.
This year, I knew that I wasn’t going to have a birthday month or a big party surrounded by friends, but I knew I wanted it to be exciting and beyond just another day on the road. Knowing we would most likely be in Vietnam, and that we’d most likely still be traveling with some friends who were visiting from the States, I knew exactly where I wanted that to be. Ha Long Bay, in the north of Vietnam, has been a bucket list item for me for quite some time. It would be a great spot for our friends from the States with limited time in Vietnam and would be a hell of a place to celebrate my birthday. And for the first time in my life, it would be a gloriously warm weather celebration.
When I started researching the trip, I discovered that there are an insane amount of cruise companies that run tours into and out of Ha Long Bay, varying from those stretching three lazy days in the bay to afternoon tours that hustle you in and out of the major attractions in the bay faster than you can say “karst rock formation.” We opted to go with the three night trip offered by Indochina Junk, a company that had a slightly higher price point than our backpacker budget felt comfortable with, but claimed to be the only company that had rights to go into deeper parts of the bay. And as an added bonus, you got to stay on the same boat for both nights of the cruise, which few other companies offered.
And those two nights were glorious. I have been lucky enough to see many karst mountains in my life, but there is something about seeing these formations burst out of beautiful blue water that make them seem even more magical than when they are on land. As part of the cruise, we weaved our way through the major karsts and had the opportunity to hop into kayaks and explore the waters around them at a more micro level. Kayaking also gives you the opportunity to see some of the crazy cave formations that have developed within the large of these mountains. For me, one of the more peaceful moments of our time in Vietnam will always be gliding through the beautiful blue water, with karsts rising above us, as the sun sets in front of us.
The other major activities, aside from kayaking and whiling the days away on a lounge chair with a Ha Long beer in hand, are visiting one of the larger caves in a karst, having lunch on a pristine white sand beach, and stopping off at an oyster farm and fishing village. The oyster farm is the typical stop you encounter on a package tour: get escorted around some kind of facility and ultimately get shown into a showroom in the hopes you’ll buy something. While the oyster farm itself is nothing to write home about, rowing through the fishing village was quite interesting. The village, which has existed for roughly 50+ years, is populated by people who have chosen a life in houses floating on what looked like former oil drums in Ha Long Bay and who have little contact with people on the mainland. It’s quite the trade-off – a life of virtual isolation, surrounded by the same 15-20 people for most of your life, but surrounded by one of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world. Any kind of emergency, medical or otherwise, requires use of one of the few speed boats in the village to quickly get you ashore. Seeing this simple life certainly inspired a little introspection about how complicated life can be, and what it is we truly need in life.
All of this – friends, incredible views, a little introspection, the sun in November! – added up to a truly memorable birthday. And knowing how much I love my birthday, Jesse also made sure there was a cake and some candles waiting for me after our last dinner on the boat to cap it all off. In the end, it was a birthday to remember. I got to experience my first warm weather birthday surrounded by friends old and newly made, all while ticking off an item from my bucket list.